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Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam

Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam

by Theodore Friend

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Award-winning historian Theodore Friend recently set out alone across Asia and the Middle East on a quest to understand firsthand the life situations of women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam recounts Friend’s remarkable journey and relates hundreds of encounters and conversations with people he met


Award-winning historian Theodore Friend recently set out alone across Asia and the Middle East on a quest to understand firsthand the life situations of women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam recounts Friend’s remarkable journey and relates hundreds of encounters and conversations with people he met along the way.

Commingling a deep respect for Islam and his faith in the potential of women to change their worlds, Friend presents an open, exploratory outsider’s perspective on women in five very different Islamic cultures — timely fare for all who wish to broaden their world horizons.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Exploring the roles of women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, this volume includes interviews, personal stories, and gorgeous color photos, all of which combine to bring out the different flavors of Islam in these countries.
From the Publisher

Roger Allen
— University of Pennsylvania
"A fascinating and necessarily variegated investigation of the nature of gender relationships in some of today's most significant Muslim societies. It will constitute a much-needed corrective to the often stereotypical and generalized images and opinions regarding Muslim women that are such a common feature in the coverage of the topic by Western media."

John Kaltner
— Rhodes College
"Theodore Friend's book will be a wake-up call for those who cling to the mistaken belief that Islam is a monolithic faith and who have a one-size-fits-all view of Muslims. Friend is an able guide on this fast-paced journey that explores how faith, gender, and politics intersect and collide in five different countries. Along the way, he introduces us to a host of fascinating individuals, some of them inspiring and some disturbing. . . . An insightful and persuasive assessment of the challenges and opportunities confronting the Muslim world."

Peter Riddell
— Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths, Melbourne School of Theology
"This superbly written account is scholarly in its method and detail yet accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with the terrain covered. Friend is rigorous in his scrutiny and scrupulously fair. His numerous interviews provide insights into both the daily concerns and the deeper questions faced by the societies encountered. This excellent book deserves to be widely read."

Reviews in Religion and Theology
“Clearly explains the views and actions of modern Muslim women and men in five Muslim nations. . . . This book is excellent for scholars and non-scholars alike since it has sociological, historical, political, cultural, and religious data.”
Midwest Book Review
“An award-winning historian sets out alone across Asia and the Middle East in an effort to understand the life situations of women in these countries. This [book] recounts his journeys, encounters, and insights into the cultures of Islam and provide an outsider’s perspective on women in five very different Islamic cultures.”

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam

By Theodore Friend

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Theodore Friend
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6673-8

Chapter One


Indonesia suffered more adversely from the Asian financial crisis of 1997 than any other nation. Yet after a period of quasi-anarchy that followed dethroning the dictator Suharto, its new leaders and a galvanized electorate did more to restructure their country than any other in the post-crisis years. If Russia failed at both restructuring its economy and providing freedom of expression, and if China has achieved restructuring while not daring to liberate opinion, Indonesia may be said to have achieved significant gains in both dimensions. A decade after the crisis that ripped economies in East and Southeast Asia, Indonesia was presenting itself to the world as the country where democracy, modernity, and Islam were walking hand in hand.

Islam in Oceania

The progress of Islam in the islands now called Indonesia was slow and largely peaceful. From around 1000 C.E., traders from Arabia, India, and China increasingly lingered and settled in Indonesian ports, bringing with them influences from the new international circuit of Islam. By the late thirteenth century, homegrown Islamic communities had been generated, Sufi in temperament. From these entrepots Islam slowly moved into the interiors, where it confronted Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms that survived until the sixteenth century. Against Indianesque rajas, Islamic sultans eventually prevailed. And the hierarchic received religion gave way to universal and egalitarian Islam, a faith that contained the ability to communicate directly to God without an intervening agency, with dimensions of social responsibility and adaptability to Indonesia's rich layers of cultural tradition — Hindu, Buddhist, and animist.

Indonesia presented a cultural easel on which to paint Islam wholly different from the Arabian backdrop. Its islands, across the Southwest Pacific and the Southeast Indian Oceans, offer a vastly different atmosphere. Indonesians exist at 80 to 95°F (Arabs may be much hotter by day, much colder by night). They live at 80 to 95 percent humidity (Arabs conduct a dry life, generally, except in Jeddah and coastal areas). Sun, rainfall, and vegetation establish a world in contrast to Arab sun, sand, and aridity. Indonesians naturally dress so as to maximize evaporation. The Qur'an does not address such problems, because the Angel Gabriel spoke to the Prophet Muhammad in a dry climate. Who shall criticize the Arabs for having developed the abaya, a long black robe for women, and the thobe, a loose-fitting, ankle-length robe, most often white, for men? One must keep the sun off one's body and prevent wind from driving sands against one's skin. Variances of style are marginal to these essential protections.

Extremes, however, arise from theology. The burqa, a woman's garment that reveals only the eyes, and may cover those with a mesh, is a function of religious-political teaching. No climate requires it, nor does the Qur'an. But the Taliban prescribed it during their years of rule in Afghanistan, along with much else that limited women's vision, education, presence, and opportunities.

Indonesian costumes are flexible and vary by region. Javanese women have traditionally worn kebaya and sarong — a blouse that falls below the waist and a sheath-skirt that covers the ankles. But unless one was working in the sun, no head covering. Modern concessions began, however, with the Islamic revival, which began to smolder in the 1970s, and for arbitrary precision can be said to have ignited in 1979.

The Iranian revolution made itself felt in Indonesia, even though its native context was Shi'ite and its consequence was a theocratic state. The ripple effect of resurgent Islam across the miles and over the waters reached Indonesia as simple assertiveness of Muslims affirming their religion for the sake of personal identities, and against two forces: the culture and the presidency. Indonesia had been a multi-confessional state since founding, in its own revolution of 1945-49. The Sukarno-Hatta duumvirate that led the nation for its early decades eliminated from its draft constitution a phrase that would have required all Muslims to obey shari'a law. The consequences of the seven words that they struck would have meant, they feared, secessionism in provinces where Christian minorities were pronounced, and resentment among Hindus, mostly on Bali, and Buddhists, mostly descended from Chinese immigrants. Indonesia, therefore, began hospitably to major world religions.

The five principles, "Pancasila," voiced by Sukarno to clinch the constitution and inspire the populace, are easily understandable in the North: nationalism, democracy, social justice, humanitarianism, and belief in a Supreme Being. Suharto, who deposed Sukarno in the violence of 1965-66, and suffocated him politically, took the fifth of the principles and made it the first. Atheistic communists were allegedly the chief provocateurs of the violence — for which half a million of them, and their sympathizers, paid with their lives. A major test of loyal citizenship then became belief in a Supreme Being. Atheism was communism, diabolically subversive. Theism was all-Indonesian. The nature of your god and liturgy mattered less than simply having them.

In the calm following the mass killings, Suharto increased his presidential power and intensified the claims of Pancasila upon the public. He eventually made Pancasila the "sole basis" of all organizations, public and private. On the road toward this ideological strait-jacketing, many Muslims demurred. A clash with police and army in 1984, in the poor port area of northern Jakarta called Tanjung Priok, led to hundreds of deaths, responsibility for which is still being sorted out a quarter-century later.

There is no question in my mind, having later talked with his military chief of staff at the time, that the source of the order to shoot was Suharto. But having driven home his Pancasila ideology, Suharto began to wake up to world Islamic resurgence. By 1991 he made his first hajj and had established ICMI, the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association, to give him leverage on religio-political dynamics.

But while laboring-class men protested violently in Tanjung Priok, Indonesian women of all classes were feeling new Muslim dynamics in their own ways.

Islamic Revival, Poverty, and Disaster

I first encountered Indonesian Islamic revival in the form of women's dress. Late in 1982, I made a research trip to Indonesia after a lapse of a dozen years, to complete work on a book that I'd suspended to become a college president. The first thing that struck me was the number of Indonesian women wearing headscarves. In the late 1960s, very few or almost none had done so. Now many did so. Polls in Indonesia were still scarce, and could not tell me a percentage of scarved women. "Many," I could say, but certainly far from "most."

Wardah Hafidz remembers the new seizures of women's consciousness at that time. Of slight build, serious mien, and determination, she obtained her doctorate in Indiana, in social policy. She came there knowing only Hollywood images, and thinking well of the U.S. She was unprepared for what she experienced in Muncie. There she heard some Americans hooting at others, "Hey, nigger." She began to understand the Ku Klux Klan with its grotesque garble of allegedly biblical teachings. Now she saw a more complex America.

Back in Indonesia in the early 1980s, she found new splits affecting women. Initiatives for equal opportunity had been making some progress, despite Suharto's ultra-patriarchal mode of governance. But now, instead of pressing onward for equal opportunity, some women were coiling back and staying at home, dedicated to being good Muslim housewives. Others, she found, "secular like myself," were told to stay home in Muslim respect, despite their counter-convictions. To deepen the confusion, some Muslim women, applying for jobs and wearing the jilbab (an Indonesian term used rather than the Arab hijab) were turned down for that very factor — clothing that appeared anti-secular, anti-social, even anti-Suharto, or just implicitly argumentative.

"With some friends ... dissenting, we introduced feminist critical thinking to Indonesia. We created controversy," she later recalled. She began to quote Fatima Mernissi (later published in Indonesian), the eloquent Moroccan who was challenging male Arabic scholars on the meaning of texts. Likewise the Pakistani Riffat Hassan, who later served in Musharraf's government.

Wardah stayed on these issues for several years until her article in Ulumul Qur'an, entitled "Misogyny in Islam," provoked a critical attack in a ten-page article from the Dewan Dakwah. This major Indonesian council for the propagation of Islamic faith castigated her for behaving like a dog with "her howling and barking." They categorized Wardah as a kafir — as infidel, unbeliever, heathen. A modern Indonesian-English dictionary elaborates a dozen kinds of subdescription of infidel. Wardah didn't say which kind, or kinds, they called her. The dogmatists showed their canine teeth by circulation of their attack to mushollas, places of worship in residential areas and office buildings.

Then the Dewan Dakwah invited Wardah to appear on a panel. Her friends warned her it would be conducted as a public trial. She consulted Nurcholish Madjid about the matter. Madjid's career beliefs, devoted to Islam and objecting to Islamic political parties, affected a whole generation. He had launched a new Muslim university in Jakarta, whose curriculum was rich in social science and natural science, leading Paul Wolfowitz, then American ambassador, to believe that it would someday be Indonesia's equivalent of a Georgetown or Brandeis University. Madjid was highly influential among Indonesia's small but growing middle class.

Madjid and the leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Abdurrahman Wahid, had both grown up in Jombang, East Java, and had attended liberal pesantrens led by their fathers. (Pesantrens is an Indonesian term for traditional Islamic boarding schools — distinct from what the Englishspeaking world has taught itself to call madrasas, which in Indonesia are Islamic day schools.) Their fathers' schools were open to frontiers of learning, as the best of Islam had been a millennium before. The national standing of the two men was contained in their universal nicknames: Madjid as "Cak Nur" and Wahid as "Gus Dur." Wahid brought to rural Islam an openness correspondent to that which Madjid brought to urban Islam. Gus Dur was elected president, post-Suharto, in 1999, but was impeached and unseated a year and a half later, his Sufi anarchism having worn poorly in high office. Cak Nur's own attempt at the presidency failed in 2004.

In consulting Madjid concerning her problem with the Dewan Dakwah, Wardah Hafidz was reaching out to an intellectually flexible reformer. "Ignore them," he told her. Instead of letting herself be tried by the council, she sent them a further article. They attacked it vituperatively. Many people were now telling Wardah's parents, with sympathetic alarm, that she was "kafir." Her parents asked her to explain what was going on. She recalls chiefly that "I feel bad [that] I gave trouble to my family." She changed her field.

Wardah felt there were now plenty of people in the women's movement, but she was tiring of the jealousies within it. Very few at that time were working on urban poverty — on advocacy of the rights of the millions of poor in Jakarta, many of whom were being evicted from their homes or seeing them burned down by the army. That was the "main reason" she shifted her focus.

Islam, of course, does not cause poverty. But neither UNDP nor World Bank national tables of income suggest that it alleviates poverty. Wardah is now tackling that poverty, one of her country's major problems. Some women in other Muslim nations are doing likewise, in rural as well as urban areas.

Wardah immersed herself in Jelembar Baru, a kampong in West Jakarta which flooded even without rain, because of tides rolling in and out. She found three noxious influences there. It was adjacent, first of all, to a red-light area. Many of the women who lived there were sex workers, and many of the men were security guards to sex establishments. Boys got into sex at twelve, eleven, ten years of age, and contracted sexually transmitted diseases early in life. A second debilitating influence in the kampong economy was the prevalence of gambling. And the third, who failed to be an influence counter to these factors, was the ustad, the male religious teacher who owned the biggest pesantren in the area and held, profitable to himself, grand study conferences each month. He made people who didn't pray five times a day and didn't fast during Ramadan feel like bad Muslims. Behind her glasses, Wardah furrowed her brow at the guilt contributions he sought; very poor people have no time for praying when they are hunting for jobs and for food. And, if they are hungry anyway, more physical harm than spiritual good may come from fasting.

Wardah shook her head. "Islam in Indonesia requires rituals, and people feel good practicing them.... But the society is corrupt, manipulative, murderous. In Islamic terms, it is munafik, hypocritical.... You see many men in religious attire, who beat their wives and keep concubines."

At that point I observed that hypocrisy cuts into all religions. Wardah agreed. Yet she pursued her point that religion in Indonesia doesn't relieve poverty: "If you give two and half percent [of your wealth, annually, as prescribed by the Qur'an], while you are stealing 50 percent from the people, what are you doing? Many give this tithe, expecting your good image as Muslim gets you two and a half hectares of land in heaven.... Question is, how much they steal?!"

What is the income, I asked Wardah, of the poorest of the urban poor? A family of five, she reckoned, might scrape together 150,000 rupiah per month. Divided among five, I calculated, that is 1,000 rupiah a day. Or, at then-current exchange rates, twelve cents a day, on which the poorest of the poor must survive. Wardah nodded, and added that most of them are squatters.

The CD-ROMs of Wardah's Urban Poverty Coalition (UPC) show the impact of Jakarta's frequent floods and forced evictions by police and army. Squatters don't have ID cards, and so they are marginalized with regard to government programs to alleviate poverty. World Bank subsidies, when channeled by the government, are blocked by corruption before reaching the very poor. Water and electricity are being privatized for profit, and "beautification" of cities often means eviction by land grabbers.

If you take the UN standards of poverty, a dollar or two a day, Wardah went on, in Indonesia about 40 percent of the population are included, which means about 90 million poor. What about the "poorest of the poor"? I asked. She said they are 20 or 30 percent of the total. That means 18 to 27 million people living on less than one dollar a day. Wardah illustrated such plights by telling me the recent story of a mother with two children, one with brain cancer, who had no means to put the child in a hospital. She burned herself and her two children to death, leaving a devastated husband behind.

I asked about scavengers. Wardah implied that they did not need my utmost sympathy: "They are in the middle layer of the poor." They can earn two and a half to five dollars a day, which is better than fruit-sellers or female laundresses.

Wardah asked me about violence in Karachi, of which she had heard (see Chapter Two). "Here," she said, "much more greenery, much more smiling." But state violence is high. The poor are pitted against each other. Local elites and interest groups work through the police and military, which hire jobless males as enforcers. The mayor of Jakarta ordered an attack on Wardah's Urban Poverty Coalition in 2002, and managed to get himself reelected despite that assault, or perhaps because of it.


Excerpted from Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam by Theodore Friend Copyright © 2012 by Theodore Friend. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Theodore Friend is a senior fellow at the Foreign PolicyResearch Institute and a former president of SwarthmoreCollege. His other books include IndonesianDestinies and Between Two Empires: TheOrdeal of the Philippines, 1929-1946, which won theBancroft Prize in American History, Foreign Policy, andDiplomacy.

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